The Lexical Domain of Beauty and its Metaphors in the Anglo-Saxon Formulaic Style

by Francisco Javier Minaya Gómez (Author)
Monographs 274 Pages


This monograph offers an analysis of the lexical domain of beauty and other additional lexical domains that are figuratively used to refer to beauty, highlighting their central role in the Anglo-Saxon formulaic style. Using different methods from computational and cognitive linguistics, this study is aimed at determining the exact semantic value of these terms, detecting possible patterns of metaphorization and metonymization and identifying strategies behind their usage, ultimately determining how beauty was conceptualised and experienced in early Medieval England and in its literature. This research evidences the importance of this aesthetic idea in the Old English poetry and its aesthetic paradigm and revealing the core associations between beauty and other religious and social ideas.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright Page
  • The Author
  • About the Book
  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1. From ‘Beauty’ to the Experience of Beauty
  • 1.1. ‘Beauty’ as an Aesthetic Idea
  • 1.2. Aesthetic Emotions and the Experience of Beauty
  • 2. The Anglo-​Saxon Mind, Senses and Aesthetic Sensibility
  • 2.1. The Anglo-​Saxon Senses, Emotions and Psychology
  • 2.2. The Anglo-​Saxon Aesthetic Experience
  • 2.3. Anglo-​Saxon Vernacular Verse: Some Considerations and Possible Subdivisions
  • 3. The Lexical Domain of Beauty and Appearance
  • 3.1. OE ansȳn
  • 3.2. OE cȳm-​
  • 3.3. Adjective OE fæger
  • 3.4. Adverb OE fægere
  • 3.5. OE fægrian
  • 3.6. OE wlite
  • 3.7. OE wlitig
  • 4. Beauty Is Cleanness
  • 5. Beauty Is Colour
  • 6. Beauty Is Uniqueness and Excellence
  • 7. Beauty Is An Intricate Pattern
  • 8. Beauty Is Light
  • 9. Beauty Is Nobility
  • 10. Beauty Is Aesthetic Pleasure
  • Concluding Remarks
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names

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As humans, we seem to be inherently drawn to objects of beauty, beautiful people and pleasant experiences. In their literary works, writers and poets have explored and sought the idea of beauty for centuries. The poet John Keats writes “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” a sentence in which he equates the abstract idea of beauty to another yet more abstract notion, that of truth. The American poet Emily Dickinson also explores this metaphor, taking it to the extreme: she personifies truth and beauty in two people who have died and speak from one grave to another, claiming that they “are one” and that these two dead bodies “brethren are,” because, in essence, beauty and truth seem to embody the same notion for her. This idea is explored in other more recent theoretical writings, for instance Scarry (2001), who compares beauty to the idea of ‘justice.’ These schemes are, needless to say, disrupted when one stops to consider the abstract concept of ‘Beauty’ (almost always capitalised) from the perspective of contemporary theories of emotion and aesthetic emotions, a discipline that has notably furthered the study of aesthetic ideas over the last two decades: beauty is then revealed, not as a set of rules or abstract prescriptions, but as an emotion that is fundamentally embodied and, in certain cases, and particularly in the case of literary works, deliberately triggered.

Currently, the idea of ‘Beauty’ or the objects, people and circumstances that generally trigger its experience seem to have implicit connotations and associations. We do know that beautiful people tend to be trusted more often and that they are, sometimes, more successful at what they do than people who might not be as easy on the eyes. For example, in contemporary films and TV series, the main characters (essentially, ‘the good guys’) are usually extremely attractive and beautiful individuals, which, to a certain extent, can also be indicative of their inner goodness. Similarly, we can also appreciate a difference in the usage of the terms that we use in Present-Day English to refer to our experiences of beauty in real life: we tend to use handsome for men, beautiful or pretty for women, gorgeous or magnificent for situations or objects, while we also use beautiful person to refer, not to physical appearance, but to goodness. Therefore, contemporary words and cultural and literary manifestations seem to embed and exhibit conceptual connections that are, in this case, culture-specific.

While these ideas have been, to a certain extent, analysed and looked into in the fields of literature and cultural studies, they have not been extensively analysed in Early English literary writings. Very little is known about the aesthetic ←11 | 12→preferences of the Anglo-Saxons prior to the Norman conquest, and, though Old English literature and, especially, poetry, has been thoroughly examined from different theoretical angles over the last decades and the past century, there are no academic works that assess the embodied emotion of THE EXPERIENCE OF BEAUTY and other related emotions in Old English poetry. In my research, I assume that first of all, triggering this experience was one of the main aims of Anglo-Saxon vernacular verse and that the concept of beauty was often related to and associated with other ideas. In this monograph, I will deliberately abandon the conception of ‘Beauty’ as a set of prescriptions or geometric rules (as well as refusing to understand ‘Beauty’ in relation to ‘Truth’ or ‘Justice) in favour of a more scientific approach that relies on Cognitive Science and emotion research that will allow me to inspect how certain Old English poems are composed in order to trigger the experience of beauty and to determine what strategies made it possible for them to do so, including the connotations that could be implicit in the usage of certain terms.

This volume is organised in ten different chapters of varying length. Chapter number one offers a bibliography review on some of the most relevant research on the aesthetic idea of ‘Beauty’ and how the literary and artistic study of ‘Beauty’ has been replaced by the conception of beauty as an embodied phenomenon, highlighting what insights can be gained from applying these theoretical ideas from the field of cognitive linguistics and emotion research to the study of Old English emotions. Chapter 2 focuses on the peculiarities of Anglo-Saxon culture, placing the emphasis on the key differences in the experience and literary expression of emotional, cultural and psychological phenomena, as well as offering an outline of the characteristics of Anglo-Saxon poetry and its possible subdivisions. Chapters 3 through 10 examine the different thematic groups into which the Old English poetic vocabulary for BEAUTY and its metaphors can be divided. Chapter 3 assesses the terms that literally mean ‘beauty’ and it examines how they are used in the Anglo-Saxon formulaic style, stressing the different figurative uses that can be identified in the poetic corpus and also engaging in lengthy discussions about the peculiarities of the Anglo-Saxon experience of beauty. Chapters 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 analyse other lexical domains like those of CLEANNESS, COLOUR, EXCELLENCE, INTRICACY, LIGHT, NOBILITY and PLEASURE with the aims of determining their role as lexical markers of beauty and to establish what processes of metaphorization and metonymization might have taken place. The last chapter offers some concluding remarks and final analysis of the usage of the Old English literal and figurative terms for ‘beauty.’

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The methodology employed in this study is based on the most recent developments of the field of historical linguistics, but also of the area of cognitive linguistics and emotion research, which will be summarised and developed in chapter 1. More specifically, this study also draws from corpus linguistics and corpus-based lexical semantics. The methodology that has been employed in order to analyse and treat the data upon which this study is based is an adaptation of the Behavioural Profiles methodology, proposed by Gries (2010), Gries and Divjak (2009) and Gries and Otani (2010): my adaptation of this methodology to suit the purposes of historical and cognitive linguistics is detailed in Minaya (2021), but I will briefly summarise the relevant parts in the following lines. This methodology aims at overcoming the traditional disadvantages of corpus linguistics, namely the fact that the concordance treatment of a given corpus isolates the occurrence from the larger context in which it occurs, a circumstance that is especially detrimental for the study of aesthetic emotions. Instead of using a concordance software, this methodology proposes the implementation of a database in which the occurrences are annotated and categorised according to the parameters that the researcher sees fit for their research purposes. In the case of the research that will be reported here, the relevant excerpts from the Old English poetic corpus were first identified using concordance software and, later on, imported and categorised in a database. The labels that were used in this research were relatively straight-forward: excerpts were tagged according to a) the terms that were used, b) the lexical domain to which they belonged, c) the nouns, adjectives and verbs with which they collocate. The statistic findings from this categorisation will be assessed in the closing section to this volume.

Broadly speaking, this volume fills the gap in the study of the Anglo-Saxon emotions and their lexical domains. Even though there are many publications that explore the conceptualisation of the mind and the treatment of sensory data, as well as many different volumes and publications on diverse Anglo-Saxon emotions, which have been written from several perspectives and theoretical angles, very few academic articles focus on Anglo-Saxon aesthetic emotions, and no recent works have explored the lexical domain of BEAUTY. This study opens the door for the examination of early medieval English aesthetic ideas and their lexical fields. Such studies, at a more basic level, can not only inform about the Anglo-Saxon aesthetic preferences, but they can also shed some light on how and why humans are so intrinsically drawn to objects of beauty and beautiful situations and what is the relation between individuals, their culture and the terms that they employ in referring to what they construe as beautiful in their minds.

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1. From ‘Beauty’ to the Experience of Beauty

Beauty is, indeed, not truth. Instead, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as Bergman famously remarked. Traditionally, beauty has been understood as an extremely abstract idea that was related to a series of moral, social and even geometrical prescriptions: in order for an object or a person to be considered beautiful, they were expected to behave a certain way and to observe a series of geometrical proportions. There are many treatises on beauty that aim at providing scientific and universal rules as to what is to be considered beautiful (for instance, Scarry, 2001) or most of the philosophical works mentioned in Sartwell (2017), but these are, by definition, set to fail. There are no universals in the experience of beauty other than the fact that it is an embodied experience.

The purpose of this chapter is to make a twofold overview of the traditional theoretical perspectives on the study of beauty: first, I will analyse the ideas that have been conventionally associated to beauty, looking into how this aesthetic idea has been represented in artworks and writings from the medieval period, when relevant, and making reference to Anglo-Saxon culture when possible; secondly, I will move on from the study of beauty from the disciplines of Philosophy, art history and History of the Ideas to the contemporary inspection of beauty as an aesthetic emotion, detailing the most relevant and recent findings in this field and how these can contribute to our understanding of beauty as an embodied phenomenon. Assessing beauty from these two perspectives will provide a solid theoretical framework in which to conceptualise the analysis of the Old English poems selected for this study.

1.1. ‘Beauty’ as an Aesthetic Idea

The subject of beauty is one of the concepts that has received most attention from philosophers, writers, poets, painters, musicians and scientists alike, reflecting how the human character is inherently driven to the appreciation, study and creation of beauty. Certain scholars like Marwick (2004: 15) go as far as stating that the “concepts of beauty through the history of western societies are basically unchanging,” directly denying the different variations of this model along the different areas mentioned above. Nevertheless, Marwick’s (2004) thought-provoking claim is fully perspectival in itself, as he refers to the concept of beauty as it is represented in the different periods of art history, which is dissociated ←15 | 16→from everyday aesthetic experience. In his work on Art and beauty in the Middle Ages, Eco (1986) points out that, in carrying out research on aesthetics

[i]t seems preferable to discuss specific themes, rather than individual philosophers; for within each particular system references to aesthetic issues are often scattered and hard to synthesise, and ideas are often bandied back and forth among various authors without, in many cases, undergoing any material change (Eco, 1986: 2).

This will be the practice of the following section. Instead of focusing on how different scholars or philosophers have understood beauty throughout history and what connections exist between their ideas, I will give an overview of the medieval experience of beauty and its artistic and literary models focusing on specific thematic issues that can afterwards be linked to the texts analysed in this monograph. I will only briefly comment on the five historical currents of thought in the study of beauty. Similarly, I will only refer to specific philosophical writings and their treatment of beauty when their approach is crucial to enlighten or guide the analysis of a given theme.

Chronologically, the first to treat the issue of beauty in writing in the West were the Greeks. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy names this branch “The Classical Conception” (Sartwell, 2017) and it defines it as follows: “The classical conception is that beauty consists of an arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole, according to proportion, harmony, symmetry, and similar notions” (Sartwell, 2017). Eco (2004: 39) points out how there was no aesthetic ideal in Greek times and how beauty was always understood in terms of other qualities, like moderation, harmony or justice. Historically, beauty tends to be associated with additional ideas like proportioned visual features or moral qualities. There is some logic in the identification of beauty with proportion, as it can be seen in surviving Greek artworks, which showcase a mathematical approach to the creation of beauty. The most important philosophers that held this view on beauty were Aristotle in Metaphysics (for a modern translation and edition see Aristotle, 1998) and Aquinas in his Summa Theologica (see Aquinas, 1981). Centuries later, this school of thought would be challenged by Edmund Burke (1757) in his work A Philosophical Enquiry of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.

The second school of thought, according to Sartwell (2017), is “The Idealistic Conception” of beauty. The Greek philosopher Plato reinterpreted Aristotle’s ideas of symmetry, proportion and unity of parts and integrated them into the abstract notion of ‘beauty,’ which is perfect and ideal. Within Plato’s philosophy and his Theory of Ideas, most famously sketched in the allegory of The Cave in The Republic (see Plato, 2007), the idea of beauty is understood as a perfect and unattainable notion that is fallibly represented in earthly beauty as an imperfect ←16 | 17→imitation. Moreover, all physical traits are integrated into larger and more abstract units (also supported by Rosenkranz, 2015), which are separately named the Good, the Beautiful and the God in Plato’s theory. This idea, as Sartwell (2017) and Eco (1986 and 2004) point out, is the root of the medieval identification between beauty and the deity and, hence, between beauty and morality.

The idea of beauty (or ‘Beauty’ with capital letters as many philosophers and scholars often write) has been debated extensively over the centuries. Scarry (2001: 9) points out some of the ideas mentioned in Greater Hippias (Plato, 1925): “while we know with relative ease what a beautiful horse or a beautiful man or possibly even what a beautiful pot is …, it is much more difficult to say what ‘beauty’ unattached to any object is.” And, indeed, to this regard, Marwick (2004: 28–29) stresses how in platonic theory there is a progressive appreciation of beauty from the corporeal to “absolute beauty,” the beauty of the soul or the idea of beauty in itself. This is the way in which, in platonic philosophy, the subject obtains full knowledge of a given idea, through the experience of many real-life instances of the aforementioned thing. Traditionally, beauty has been talked about in the abstract and, while in Plato’s philosophy it is possible to consider beauty as a disembodied idea, modern theories, like the theory of embodiment, stress that this is not the case. Although a certain degree of abstraction as to what constitutes a beautiful object is attainable through lived real-life situations, arriving at the essential idea of beauty is out of the question or at least it is not feasible from the perspective of modern theories of aesthetic emotion.

Biographical notes

Francisco Javier Minaya Gómez (Author)

Francisco J. Minaya Gómez is an Assistant Lecturer at the Faculty of Letters in the University of Castilla-La Mancha and a teacher of early Medieval English literature. His research focuses on the conceptualisation and expression of emotions in Old and Middle English language and literature.


Title: The Lexical Domain of Beauty and its Metaphors in the Anglo-Saxon Formulaic Style